2563Joined Sep 2020



Yale EA organizer and Projects & Research at the Center for AI Safety.

I like beets.

I'm not trying to be anonymous but just don't want all my forum posts to be at the top of my google results. I am Thomas 🪵side.


Pragmatic AI Safety


I have posted on the forum quite a few times. It has sometimes been part of my job to write posts for the forum. I think that I am generally a strong writer, and I rarely feel imposter syndrome.

But even I find it intimidating to post on the forum. Some of what is written here is just really, really well written and thought out. It's intimidating to think you are posting alongside those posts! I think in my case though, it's a good thing I'm intimidated. If I wasn't at all intimidated, I would innundate the forum with random ramblings, because my general bar for sharing thoughts in other contexts (e.g. with my friends in informal settings) is very low. I was the kind of person who used to write emails to administrators in middle school asking them for changes to the school's caterpillar abatement policy (yes, actually). I am the kind of person who writes 50% of the texts in the group chat. And so on. You do not want somebody like me constantly posting on the EA forum!

I have several full length posts I've written that in the past year that I haven't put up. I could post them, and maybe somebody could get value from them, but they aren't finished according to my standards. And I won't post them until they are, if they ever are.

I suspect there are many others who are the opposite of me. Their thoughts are just as good, or better, but their general bar for posting things is way too high and they should work on becoming less intimidated. That's why it's really hard to give generalized advice. If you say, "please, post, don't worry about it!" people like me will post way too much. If you say, "the bar is so high, really think about it" people who aren't like me will post way too little. That's why the most helpful thing in my view is to just ask some friends for personalized advice. They probably have a pretty good idea of which side of this spectrum you might fall on.

First just want to flag that I don't have extremely high confidence in the last section in general, it wasn't nearly as researched as the rest.

I agree there are a number of disanalogies, most specifically that it does seem like biological weapons are straightforwardly less useful than lethal autonomous weapons. In this sense maybe LAWS are more like chemical weapons, which were at least claimed to be useful (though probably still not as useful), but were also eventually banned.

I'm not sure I agree about the creep factor. I think it's possible to make LAWS "creepy;" at least, watching the Slaughterbots documentary felt creepy to me. I think it's true they could be "cooler" though; I can't imagine a biological weapon being cool.

I don't believe you explicitly defined "CBW."

Thanks, fixed. It stands for "chemical and biological weapons."

Yeah I wasn't sure which grants you were referring to (haven't looked through them all), but indeed that doesn't seem to be explained by what I said.

I agree that EA already selects for high SES people and that offering funding for them to organize a group doesn't negate this problem. Other steps are also needed. However, I know quite a few anecdotal cases of group organizers being able to organize more than they otherwise would have because they were being paid, and so this policy does concretely make some difference.

I'm not involved with EA funds, but some university group organizers have taken semesters of leave in the past to do group organizing full time for a semester. If you assume their term is 14 weeks, then that's 14*40=560 hours of work. At $20/hr, that's more than $10,000. And I think it is pretty reasonable to request more than $20/hr (various funding sources have previously offered something like $30/hr).

In general, nowadays, many group organizers are not volunteers and are paid for their part time work (if they are not full time, this shouldn't amount to five figures for one semester though). I think this is a good thing, since many university students simply cannot afford to take a volunteer job with a commitment of 10+ hours per week, and I wouldn't want EA groups only run by people who are rich enough that that's feasible.

Ironically, I don't think the comment I made that Thomas included above rises to my usual standard for my posts. You can see in the thread there are some issues with it, and if I were going to make a post about it I'd probably collect some data. I tend to have a lower standard for making comments.

I think you're right and it's worth thinking about these cases. That being said, I think tail impact is going to come from people who have good judgement including on how to develop their careers, open new opportunities, and select future jobs across their career. It's unclear to me which group the 80k job board should be catering to, but plausibly those most extremely self-motivated people don't need a job board to show them their options.

Thanks for posting, I think you have some great thoughts! I generally agree with the spirit of this post.

I do think it's worth noting that what people view as "excessive" or "not frugal" is not always in line with reality. For instance, many people find it "excessive" to order a $10 uber to save 30 minutes, but don't find it excessive to wait until the very last minute to book a train ticket such that the price has increased from $20 to $120.  In my view the latter is more excessive. This is just to say that the actual numbers matter, rather than purely the vibes of the spending. But as you say, the vibes matter too for community culture.

If you haven't already seen them, you might be interested in some other posts on similar issues:

I think this is putting too much on 80k. They have hundreds of jobs in many different areas listed on their website, and it's a very daunting task to evaluate each one of them when the evaluators are generalists who often have to rely on (conflicting) opinions from people in the community. On top of that, what is career capital for one person could plausibly be direct impact for some other person, so it doesn't really seem one size fits all.

If somebody can't evaluate jobs on the job board for themselves, I'm not that confident that they'll take a good path regardless. People have a tendency to try to offload thinking to places like 80k, and I actually think it could be bad if 80k made it easier to do that on extremely fine grained topics like individual jobs.

I do like the idea of having comments on particular jobs. And it also would be good for 80k to be more clear they don't expect all these jobs to necessarily have direct impact.

I don't know whether it's the case that many people on the internet are looking at the job board and deciding which jobs to apply to when they don't have a strong engagement with EA ideas, and that these sorts of people are the types who would actually get the jobs. If that's the case (80k would know better than me), then I think it maybe does make sense to restrict to jobs that aren't going to be bad if such a person gets them. That seems like an empirical question.

I just think anguish is more likely than physical pain. I suppose there could be physical pain in a distributed system as a result of certain nodes going down.

It's actually not obvious to me that simulations of humans could have physical pain. Seems possible, but maybe only other orders of pain like anguish and frustration are possible.

Students have by far the most flexibility in their careers. It's not uncommon for university students (in the US--maybe some other age in other countries) to do things like switch their major from biology to economics; except in very rare circumstances, 40 year old biologists do not become economists. If you suppose that certain high-impact career paths require very special skills not common in the population, then you might need people to develop those skills early rather than try to find people who already have them. There are some areas of EA that probably do have this property, though the popular perception of it is maybe overblown.

I do think it would be good if there could be more experienced older people in EA, since I think there are probably many people out there with highly relevant and useful experience who haven't heard of EA but would be receptive.

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